Bengals have unique juggling act with Vontaze Burfict

CINCINNATI -- On one hand, the Cincinnati Bengals have to expect that a healthy Vontaze Burfict will be back to playing like the intimidating, aggressive tackler he was for most of his first three seasons.

On the other, they also have to prepare for the possibility that he won't. They have to go into the year understanding that Burfict may not be his old self in Week 1 as he continues to rehab from microfracture surgery on his left knee. Heck, they have to know he may not even play in a couple of early-season games.

It's quite the juggling act of game plans and expectations.

"We've got to feel positive about what's going on with him," coach Marvin Lewis said at the owners meetings in Phoenix this week. "[But] we can't approach the season with him. We just have to go forward, and when he shows up and does his thing then we're better."

See? It's a juggling act of emotions.

But this is where the Bengals are as they wait for Burfict to overcome one of the scariest surgeries in sports. For Burfict and the Bengals, this offseason will be all about patience.

In the middle of January, not long after the Bengals' playoff run ended with what's become a customary first-round exit, Burfict underwent microfracture surgery.

He was injured in Week 8 last season when he took a hard shot to the knee as he chased a Baltimore Ravens running back. After several plays off, a hobbled Burfict returned, wrapping up multiple ball carriers at the end of a dramatic early-game goal-line stand that kept the Ravens off the scoreboard. He finished the eventual win with seven tackles.

But afterward the team discovered he had issues with cartilage in the knee. He required surgery to clean it up before he could play again. A simple procedure, most players typically come back from knee scopes within three weeks.

Despite a comeback attempt, he never made it off the rehab fields. By Week 15 he was officially placed on injured reserve with an injury that was worse than originally thought.

Microfracture surgeries have their post-operative success stories. But they've also ended careers. There's very little in between. It's that uncertainty about what to expect once an athlete completes rehab that creates worry, and juggling acts like one the Bengals currently have.

Burfict's patience will be tested this spring and summer as he slowly does more and more to strengthen his leg. It's a tedious rehab process, and if he tries to speed it up, it could lead to disastrous results when he officially steps back onto the field.

The hope is he'll be ready for training camp. But depending upon how well his body and mind have settled back, there is a chance that return could be delayed. That's why Lewis said the Bengals can't pencil Burfict in at weakside linebacker.

Some staff members, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther and linebackers coach Matt Burke among them, have traveled to California to visit Burfict while the new dad goes through the early stages of rehab.

"It's a situation where he's got to really feel great with the people he's working with," Lewis said. "We've tried to do a great job of incorporating us and them. He knows the value he brings our team, so we wanted to make sure that everybody's been checking on him personally."